Close readers of good fiction will remember with pleasure Evan Connell's fine "Mrs. Bridge." In 1975, I think it was, I remember urging all addicted collectors to read his novel, "The Connoisseur." Now he has written a book that grows quite naturally out of "The Connoisseur," a study, in easy story-telling form, of the obsession for travel the "long desire") that afflicts the human race, and has, ever since the now-forgotten Pytheas recorded his travels in a now-lost book called either "On the Ocean" or "About the Ocean," about 350 years before Christ.
While "A Long Desire" did not excite me with its originality in quite the same way that Connell's fiction has, it is on the whole an interesting, workmanlike pastiche of information held together by the connective tissue of his informal, often witty, personal prose. It is a readable account of many passionate travelers, what inspired them to set off, where they went and how, as much as we know, they ended up.
There are the better-known histories: of the mythic and avatar-like Prester John, of Columbus, Richard Halliburton, Pizarro, Henry Hudson, Sir Walter Raleigh. Others are less familiar: Hsuan-tsang, the 7th-century Buddhist monk, and Victorian Mary Kingsley, "the voyager," as she called herself who went to West Africa many times, collecting specimens, examining everything alive on the Dark Continent, returning there again and again dressed in her formal English clothes until, at 38, she encountered an epidemic and died. Connell writes about the searchers for E1 Dorado, like Lope de Aguirre, and about Elizabethan Captain Martin Frobisher who wanted to find the Northwest Passage. There are travelers with great quests, like the tragic group of children who set out in the 12th century on a crusade to free Holy Land of the infidels and ended, as many half-mad taravelers do, drowned or enslaved or lost in the mists of history.
From these lives it is clear that the long desire has, usually, a strong motive: finding shortcuts to fabled places, gold, jewels, land, seeking to find favor in the eyes of a monarch, religious fervor. Sometimes it was even personal safety When Raleigh was imprisoned in the Tower after the death of his patroness Elizabeth, he petitioned the King to allow him to travel to Guiana: "it is a journey of honnor and riches I offer you; and enterprise fesible and certayne." He added that if he failed to find a Guiana mountain containing silver and gold "let the commander have commission to cut off my head ther." The tragedy of his last journey as a sick and broken old man who had spent 13 of his 64 years in the Tower, and his execution after all his vain efforts, is reflected in his last brave sentence: "I have a long journey to go and therefore will take my leave," he said on the scaffold, and put his head down for the executioner.
Connell's most fascinating account, though, is about the search, not for places, but for the secret of transmutation of lead and other minerals into gold, by diverse persons and methods. Nicolas Flamel, the 14th century public scribe, Helvetius in the same century, the Swedish general Paykull in 1706 - all were said to have accomplished alchemy's superme achievement, which Newton as well as chemist Sir Robert Boyle believed in. Connell describes the frauds, the "masters of deceit" like Caetano and Christopher Hauser but he saves his best pages for the story of "that quasi-genius Philippus Theophrastus Aureolus Bombastus ab Hohenheim, called Paracelsus, the archetype of all travelers as well as alchemists. A contemporary of Martin Luther, Paracelsus was a physician who "focused on Man." He is said to be the figure on whom the Faust legend is based, a traveler who went thousands of miles seeking knowledge, moving from city to city peddling his herbs and drugs, a spendthrift, a gluttonous drunk, a genius. Imprisoned often, and then exiled again and again, his unending search to know finished at 48. He wrote: "I have traveled throughout the land and was a pilgrim all my life, alone and a stranger feeling alien."
For those kept home by shortages, "A Long Desire" is a satisfying substitute for the gasless road. For those debt-ridden by inflation, these stories of the journeys for gold may well inspire them to join the search - in their kitchens beginning with a few pieces of lead in hand.